A mysterious rare orchid makes its home in New Hampshire’s forests 

By: - May 15, 2023 9:31 am

The small whorled pogonia is one of the rarest orchids in North America, and it makes its home in New Hampshire. (Jeff Lougee)

Everybody likes something rare, whether it’s a baseball card, an old car, or a seemingly nondescript orchid.

One of the rarest orchids in North America happens to make its home among particular topography in New Hampshire, in forests of hemlock, beech, oak, and pine.

The federally threatened wildflower has a grayish green stem, and its elliptical-shaped leaves “radiate like a star,” said Chris Kane, part-time ecologist at the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau. One, sometimes two green-yellow flowers open up like delicate little mouths. Look closer and you might see rows of what look like tiny teeth.

This is the small whorled pogonia. Sporadic concentrations of the rare plant span from Canada to as far south as Georgia, while New Hampshire and Maine have the largest populations in the world.

It’s not at all showy like the pink bulbous flowers of the lady slipper orchid, or the popular moth orchids for sale at garden centers. Instead, the small whorled pogonia grows humbly on the forest floor among its fellow native neighbors – such as Indian cucumber root, witch hazel, and New York fern. It blends in with much of its surroundings.

“It’s quite possible that people who walk by one might not even know they see one,” Kane said.

The small whorled pogonia is a rare orchid that makes its home in New Hampshire. Pictured are capsules that form holding hundreds of dust-like seeds. (Photo by Chris Kane/NH Natural Heritage Bureau)

The small whorled pogonia is found largely in the east-central part of New Hampshire, with populations stretching across the border into Maine. Scientists working with the orchid tend to keep their specific locations publicly quiet, but that doesn’t deter the serious hobbyists from venturing out into the woods.

“I think for some people that develop an interest in botany and finding species, it’s like a little treasure hunt,” said Jeff Lougee, director of stewardship and ecological management at The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire. “I think that’s a big part of it. With orchids, just like birds, there are folks out there that develop lists and want to see them all.”

This orchid remains a mystery of sorts. It can go dormant for years, sometimes decades. It likes specific spots within common habitats, and yet doesn’t propagate very successfully in them. Its seeds can remain in the ground for 20 years unsprouted, but still be viable.

Kane called it “a really sort of inscrutable species.”

The perennial orchid made national headlines last year when it was found in Vermont for the first time since 1902. Before it was identified by two community scientists, the small whorled pogonia was widely believed to be extinct in the Green Mountain State for the last 100-plus years. A state botanist called the discovery “astounding.”

A mysterious wildflower

New Hampshire’s small whorled pogonia populations can range anywhere from a single plant to “many hundreds,” Kane said. But because some can go dormant for several years at a time, they’re tricky to count. He estimated there’s likely many more out there than people realize.

The rare little flower has a lot of complexities, and researchers remain fascinated by its peculiar existence.

“You’d think that it being rare, it has a rare habitat,” Kane said. “But as it turns out, the habitat is about as plain vanilla as it gets. A mixed hardwood-softwood, average-age forest. There are probably a million acres of habitat like that in New Hampshire.”

And yet the orchid likes very distinct conditions within that common habitat, showing up in a spotty manner. Lougee said it’s typically found “at the toe of slopes where there is a little bit more moisture.”

I think for some people that develop an interest in botany and finding species, it’s like a little treasure hunt.

– Jeff Lougee, director of stewardship and ecological management at The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire

The orchid develops capsules holding hundreds of dust-like seeds, and yet it struggles to propagate. That’s because it requires a certain “fungal partner” in order for seeds to germinate, Kane said. Scientists are enthralled by the relationship between the small whorled pogonia’s roots and a mysterious type of mycorrhizal fungi, which appears to be essential to successful propagation.

Sabrina Stanwood, administrator at the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau, called the small whorled pogonia a “diva plant” because of its distinct needs.

Protecting New Hampshire’s small whorled pogonia populations

Generally speaking, the small whorled pogonia has been put at risk over the years by human development of forest habitats. It was listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1982, and has since been changed to “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lougee credits that positive movement to increased identification and recovery efforts over the last three decades.

“There was a lot of work done to identify populations,” he said, “to help implement a recovery plan. Part of that included inventory work to make sure we had a good handle on where the populations were. We identified a number of populations not known about, and we’re getting a better handle on where the species can be found.”

Some experimental management work appears to have helped make populations more viable, both Lougee and Kane said. The work is focused around increasing the amount of light getting into the forest’s “deep-shaded understory,” as populations located there have seemed to decline over time and not reproduce.

For example, small whorled pogonia populations had been decreasing in the White Mountain National Forest starting in the late 1990s, largely attributed to an increase in competing vegetative growth preventing sunlight from reaching the small orchid.

“We have seen a response where more plants are producing capsules and that’s really exciting because that’s a pretty key thing to the viability,” Lougee said.

Kane said experimental work in some locations has resulted in a “flush of new plants coming up.”

So why should people care about a modest rare orchid that grows so inconspicuously you might not be able to find it? Its presence is ultimately indicative of New Hampshire’s native biodiversity – the rich variety of plants and creatures that create a carefully connected ecosystem. Native plants are especially important in a changing climate that’s enabling invasive species to run rampant.

And with all of its mysteries, who knows what the small whorled pogonia could mean for the future. That’s why, in part, researchers like Kane and Lougee feel a duty to help maintain this one tiny piece of an enormous ecological puzzle.

“(In a world) largely dominated and controlled by humans, (plants) don’t really have the opportunity to avoid destruction or even maintain their successful life in certain situations unless we step in,” Kane said. “That becomes a moral question. Is that a responsibility that humans have on this earth?”

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Hadley Barndollar
Hadley Barndollar

Hadley Barndollar covers climate, environment, and inequality for the New Hampshire Bulletin. Previously, she was the New England regional reporter for the USA TODAY Network and was named Reporter of the Year by the New England Newspaper and Press Association.